Was that really the Russian hockey team, or was somebody pulling my goalie, so to speak? The Unified Team that won the gold medal on Sunday played air guitar in the athletes' village, exchanged high fives on the M�ribel ice and engaged dour coach Viktor Tikhonov in a group hug as warm and fuzzy as a Russian fur hat. Aren't they supposed to be hard? The only thing hard about many of these guys is the currency they'll earn one day in the NHL.
Following his squad's 3-1 win over Canada in the Olympic final, Tikhonov found himself leading a superlative national team that may soon be without players. Twelve of its 23 members have been drafted by NHL teams. The silver medalist Canadians, meanwhile, were led by two players—goalie Sean Burke and center Eric Lindros—now essentially without a team.
Which is—to circle way back, like 19-year-old New York Rangers-bound Russian wunderstud Aleksei Kovalev with the puck—where the former Soviet Union may soon be left: essentially without a team. Was Sunday the end of an era?
Already, in France, the Unified Team had no fans, no anthem and nothing but a small manufacturer's logo on the front of its otherwise familiar red uniforms. After the gold medal game, players performed an impromptu striptease, tossing helmets, pads, gloves and sticks into the stands as if they had no more use for them. Earlier in the fortnight a few Russians—the Lithuanian-born defenseman Darus Kasparaitis was the only non-Russian on the team—peddled their brand-new, long-ago-ordered parkas with CCCP stitched on the back.
And now, it appears, the Big Red hockey machine itself is being sold for parts. The devastated economy in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) has made cash-starved teams in the Soviet elite league willing to negotiate for the release of their high-profile players. "If that team could be kept together, it would be dominant for years," said Canadian coach Dave King. "But whether they stay together is someone else's decision."
CIS hockey officials still exercise some control over their players, and Tikhonov acknowledged on Sunday what most observers already knew: that at least a few players from this Olympic team will be turned loose in North America. But he was quick to add a caveat. "In my opinion, there can be no end of Russian ice hockey ever," he said. "This can't be regarded as the end of an era. This [victory] will further the development of Russian ice hockey."
But logic seems to say this: Viktorama, get a grip. Six-foot-three defenseman Dmitri Mironov, 26, may be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs next month. Defenseman Igor Kravtchouk, 25, and forward Evgeny Davydov, 24, will be in Chicago Blackhawk and Winnipeg Jet uniforms, respectively, no later than next season. Already there are 20 former Soviets playing in the NHL, all of whom followed pioneer and 1988 Soviet Olympic captain Vyacheslav Fetisov from the mother country. And the majority of the players on the Unified Team are on the far side of their career arcs, so it may be a warm day in Siberia before we see another club like this.
The Unified Team scored the game's first goal on Sunday a minute into the third period when center and Philadelphia Flyer draftee Vyacheslav Boutsaev slapped a rebound in over Burke, whose future in the NHL is like those of his Russian attackers: It was brightened in M�ribel but remains in the hands of others.
To be sure, Burke, a 25-year-old NHLer in self-imposed exile, made many of the same preposterous saves during the Olympics as U.S. goalie Ray LeBlanc (box, page 30). "When it comes to stopping pucks," claimed an evidently drool-bucket-wearing writer in the Calgary Herald last week, "Ray LeBlanc couldn't share the same crease with Sean Burke."
Unfortunately Burke cannot literally share the same crease with Chris Terreri, the starting goalie for the New Jersey Devils. The Devils, for whom Burke has played throughout his four-year NHL career, bumped him to backup goalkeeper last season, and thus he demanded a trade last spring. When New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello would not accommodate him, Burke made good on his threat to play for the Canadian Olympic team, for which he also played in 1988.